System Hack: The Fiasco Tilt-Switch

Ah, Fiasco. While not one of the first narrative games or one of the most unique, Fiasco captured the hearts of players because it accomplishes what it sets out to do so well. A game of characters with powerful ambition and poor impulse control, Fiasco takes the recipe set out by its predecessors like Primetime Adventures and distills it to one zany formula, bearing more than a passing resemblance to a Coen Brothers movie. Requiring only a few six-sided dice and one key decision point, Fiasco is a sweet and simple narrative game that can do no wrong.

Rather, it’s a game that can do little wrong, but not absolutely no wrong. What’s wrong with Fiasco? Well, for one, it’s a garbage party game! Fiasco supports between three and five players, as increasing the player count beyond five requires both keeping track of an awkward number of plot elements as well as stretching the game out (each player gets four scenes, no matter how many players there are) to the point of distraction. Jason Morningstar, designer of Fiasco, identified these issues well and is absolutely right with his player count recommendations. But when seven of your closest friends come over and want a Fiasco, there isn’t much you can do. Or is there.

Let’s back up for a second. Fiasco is a narrative game where simple rules and prompts come together to make for a fun and funny improv experience. Using lists of objects, locations, needs, and relationships, Fiasco first uses dice to let players set up the premise for their story. A game taking place backstage at a rock concert (the “Touring Rock Band” playset) may have a tour bus as a location, a star and a groupie as a relationship, and getting your one big break as a need. Once the premise is set up, with at least one object, location, and need, and each player having a relationship with the people next to them, characters are created and the story begins. Each scene focuses on one of the characters, and that character’s player gets to decide whether to establish the scene, or resolve the scene. Resolving the scene involves answering one question: does this scene go well or poorly for your character? Based on the scene outcomes, white and black dice are handed out, which are used to determine the Tilt (a big plot twist in the middle) and the Aftermath (how the story ends for each character).

Today’s System Hack builds off of some basic advice from The Fiasco Companion, but provides some new rules to give it that needed mechanical heft. On page 42 of the Companion you’ll find Crosstown Rivals, advice for running two concurrent tables of Fiasco in the same setting. Crosstown Rivals is an intriguing idea, but that’s all it is; the paragraph or two under the heading has good advice, but no solid changes. If you really want to run two-table Fiasco, you’re going to need to set some ground rules. New rules? That’s why this is System Hack.

If you’re looking at Crosstown Rivals, you’ll see that the core idea involves table crossover at key points. Police chase? Let the other table know. Someone visited in the night by a hostile stranger? Other table could provide some backstory to this. It’s a good idea, a great idea even, but not one you can rely on when each table is going to get absorbed into their own Fiasco. What you need is some rules that state when an event is so important that both tables get involved. No need to make new rules for this, though. We already have the most important events, and the biggest event of them all is the Tilt. The Tilt changes the game halfway through, and makes everything get just a bit weirder. So how can we take a two table game of Fiasco and really make it weird? Switch up the players.

It’s fairly simple. Let’s start with the setup. Pick a playset that both tables will use. Like in any game of Fiasco, there must be at least one location, object, and need for each table. For each location, though, make a copy of the card and give it to the other table. The locations in each table also exist at the other table…also use this to forbid duplicates if such a conflict were to arise. Other than locations, every other card stays at its respective table. As described in Crosstown Rivals, feel free to inform the other table about what’s going on when appropriate. You will need one extra card, a relationship. Roll two dice, and flip a coin to determine their order (heads higher value first, tails lower value first). Write down this mystery relationship and save it for later.

The key to making this two table game of Fiasco truly interesting comes at the Tilt. As in every game of Fiasco, have everyone roll their dice and find the highest white and highest black value at the table. These two people should pick the Tilt cards for the table, rules as written. Then, they roll their dice one more time. Rolling again is important, because you don’t want the results to affect what they pick for the Tilt. The person with the highest absolute value (either white or black) from each table will take the Tilt cards from their table, and join up with the person who had the highest absolute value at the other table. That mystery relationship? That’s how those characters are involved with each other. These two players should discuss their characters, their tilt events, and whatever object, location, or need was associated with their character. While the characters are moving, those cards should stay where they are. The new characters are inserting themselves into the other ongoing story, not blowing it up completely. The dice that those characters have earned so far come with them, though.

In normal Fiasco, the Tilt cards get placed on the table, to be invoked when appropriate. For two-table Fiasco to work, the Tilt-Switch needs to be invoked immediately. Otherwise, there’s a new player at the table who has no idea what’s going on! Since the Tilt occurs at the middle of the game, it’s possible to start Act 2 at any player; everyone will get their scenes no matter what. Therefore, start Act 2 at the switched player. Have them choose whether to establish or resolve, as normal, but make sure the scene is relevant to the Tilt and the new character’s appearance. Have them reference the character they replaced if they want, but resist the temptation to bring them back. Crosstown Rivals involves crossover and persistence, but crossover scenes are difficult to manage.

If you want a crossover scene, wait until the end. While the groups are separate, your tables will get a feel for if they’re converging or diverging as they play through Act 2. Keep following the Crosstown Rivals guidance and sharing pertinent information between tables. As you get to the last scene, have the faster group wait for the other to catch up, and then run the scenes one after the other. Whoever is establishing should know which characters they want to bring in from the other table, if any. If there isn’t that kind of crossover, don’t worry! The advice is more to restrict it, rather than encourage it…too many cross-table cameos and the game will slow down, and those cameos won’t have the same impact as the Tilt-Switch.
Once the last scene wraps up, cameos or not, roll for the Aftermath as usual. The dice distribution should be the same, as there’s still two scenes per character per act. That said, bring the group back together and share your aftermaths among the wider group. The cross-table banter should help keep everyone informed as to how the stories ended, and if there were any secrets, the end is a great time for reveals.

Looking at the way the Tilt-Switch is set up, it wouldn’t be too difficult to, instead of having one character at the table swap, have two. Instead of one mystery relationship, write two, and instead of doing a second roll to see who switches, do a second roll to see who is related to who. The one issue here is that this will dramatically change the game. For four person tables, you’re shuffling half the players! Figuring out what story is left may be tough to do. For three person tables, it’s actually the same as just switching one person, except you’re also changing all the cards on the table…very disruptive. Therefore, I could only really recommend trying the Two Tilt-Switch with two five person tables, and even then only in games where a huge change-up is at least somewhat in-genre. All those semi-serious playsets? Forget it. Trust me when I say that incorporating one Tilt-Switch into your two table game of Fiasco will be plenty for changing things around and injecting some good old-fashioned chaos into your game.

In summary:

  1. Set up two Fiasco games. Use the same playset.
  2. Roll two additional dice and flip a coin. Write a “mystery relationship”…if the coin is heads, the higher number is used for the first (broader) category; if the coin is tails, the lower number is used for the first category.
  3. Copy all the location cards and give the copy to the second table to put in the middle. Disallow duplicate locations.
  4. Play Fiasco! Play through Act 1 as normal. Use suggestions from Crosstown Rivals and inform the other table of important (or loud/noticeable) events.
  5. When the Tilt comes up, pick the Tilt as normal. Have the two Tilt players roll their dice again…the player with the highest absolute value is going to go to the other table. Have them pick one of the two Tilt events and go confer with the corresponding player at the other table.
  6. The two switching players are related via the mystery relationship. Have them discuss their relationship, the events of their tables so far, and the two Tilt events they brought. Once they figure out why the switch has occurred, have them go to their new tables. The Tilt cards stay at the table they were rolled at.
  7. Play through Act 2 with the players switched up. Continue with the Crosstown Rivals event conversations, noting in particular the characters that have been at both tables.
  8. If the story seems to warrant it, have both tables play out their final scenes with cross-table cameos and some healthy chaos.
  9. Have everyone roll their dice for the Aftermath, rules-as-written should work without modification. Share among the whole group!

These rules should make the Crosstown Rivals suggestions from The Fiasco Companion more dynamic, and also make Fiasco even more chaotic than it usually is. Now, this is great for a board game night where you typically have too many people for Fiasco, or for when you’re looking for a good silly diversion or improv exercise. As mentioned above, though, more serious playsets and more story-oriented games of Fiasco will likely be disrupted too much by this modification. This modification also only partially resolves the issues created by running Fiasco with more than five players. The one thing which this setup does well is prevent the game from dragging by keeping the number of scenes down to a reasonable level. It does not necessarily make it easier to track all the cards; in fact, the chaos of the Tilt-Switch is induced by forcing two players to sit down in completely different scenarios! If your group often has games of Fiasco run away from them, this is quite likely to happen here too. One thing that makes this or any large-player hack for Fiasco easier is a facilitator, who keeps the tables on track and manages cross-table information. In this situation with two games going on concurrently, having a non-player facilitator could make the game much easier to run and allow for more cross-table information flow.

Fiasco is a great game for a small group, but its themes and the stories it creates make many a small dinner party or gaming group intrigued by the idea of playing with 6, 7, or 8 people. By running two tables concurrently you can keep the game tight, but by using Tilt-Switch you can get the tables interacting more than would occur in the Fiasco Companion’s Crosstown Rivals setup. If your group is too big for Fiasco but really wants to create stories using its framework, give the Tilt-Switch rules a try. It’ll be a little nuts, but that’s what the Tilt is there for anyway. You may not create a tragicomedy or character study, but you will probably have fun and may even create a coherent story!

Fiasco is published by Bully Pulpit Games, and is available from DriveThruRPG.

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